Sunday, February 26, 2012

What is Unction? (Part I of ???)

In my previous blog post, I relayed a question submitted by e-mail from a blog reader. On the surface, the question primarily involved "last rites" and/or "extreme unction." There were several other issues and topics involved, but the sacrament of healing was at the forefront of the question. As such, that seems as good a place to start as any.

Basically, "last rites" is derived from the custom of anointing of the sick. For purposes of this blog entry, I am going to try to discuss from a biblical foundation why we have anointing of the sick and what we base those notions on. In the next entry, I am going to try to map out the history of anointing of the sick in a no doubt oversimplified history of how the custom evolved into a sacrament and how it then evolved (or devolved as the case may be) into "last rites."

One note/disclaimer: I am going to try to be as even handed in the laying out of the scriptural foundation and history of anointing of the sick as I can be. I imagine that as I progress, I will be forced to become much more theological in nature in my discussions. My pro-Catholic bias on the issues will largely no doubt come out. I will attempt to do a blog entry and play devil's advocate (so to speak) and present the more Reformation era Protestant rebuttals to the idea of anointing as a sacrament to the best of my ability, no doubt offending as many traditions as possible along the way. It is not my attempt to offend anyone. It is perfectly fine for the reader to disagree on my opinions and assessment. I will have two ground rules: I am doing all this as a teaching/learning series. Likewise, if you dislike or strongly disagree with what I am saying, please be civil and stick to the issues at hand. Snotty or polarizing comments and ad hominem attacks against this or that theological tradition  or denomination will be deleted. Theological discourse and teaching is to build up the Body of Christ, not tear it asunder.

Healing of Naaman
Scriptural warrant for anointing of the sick and prayers for healings and the curings of the ill are replete in both the Old and New Testaments, to the extent that they are almost too many to catalog in a short blog entry. In the Old Testament, the stories of various Israelite leaders or prophets performing healings range from the story of Moses and the Fiery Serpents in Numbers to Elisha's healing of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings. Healing is also a major theme in the entire Book of Job, and the Book of Proverbs gives advice that wholesome talk will bring good health and that God's Word brings healing. Even the Prophet Daniel records King Nebuchadnezzar's sickness and healing.  What is particularly interesting in the Old Testament is that healing is not something God reserved for his elect Israel. Both Nebuchadnezzar and Naaman were both Gentiles. Naaman, in fact, was a general of the King of Aram, one of Israel's arch enemies on the battlefield.
Del Greco's Jesus healing the Blind Man

The New Testament is even more replete with the motif of God's work in the area of healing. Jesus performs countless acts of healing in primarily the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John is unique in that it only records 7 of Jesus' miracles, 3 of which are healings. If you wanted to somehow count the raising of Lazarus as a healing then 4, though I think that cheapens the story to say that the raising of Lazarus was a mere medical resuscitation. The Book of Acts is likewise replete with stories of the early apostles and their acts of healings and other miracles.

The primary text used for healing services in the Christian tradition is not so much the mandates of Jesus and the Disciples in the Gospels or Acts, but in the letter of James.  I reproduce that section here in its entirety for reasons I will later elaborate on:

"Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

These are the closing verses (in fact the very last) of James' letter for several reasons. I include those final two paragraphs in their entirety because the very verse (14) pertaining to healing is often ripped out of context when read at a healing service or "Last rites" unction. As you can see when you read the entire section, there is much more at play in this text than a simple "Thou shalt go, anoint, and heal people" commandment.


"Last Rites" is a plural term. It is not "Last Rite." James ties up several theological themes in his short letter in this passage. It is not just about healing, but the themes of prayer, forgiveness of sins, works, death, and life all come together in this passage. That is very important in understanding the relationship in subsequent Church sacramental theology of the relationships of the "Last rites." A Sacrament is a "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Sacraments, like Christians in community, do not stand alone unto themselves. They are all at work together as Sacraments, not stand alone items on a divine "Things to do" list.

This is what sacramental theology is all about.

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